Cross-country skiing offers great exercise, great views, great fun (and you can take the dog!)
The world’s largest flat top mountain offers locals some of the best Nordic skiing in the state, and it’s a source of pride and a closely held secret, depending on who’s talking.
“We’re a little gem. A little secret,” said Al Fournier, a member of Grand Mesa Nordic Council. Fournier has lived and skied all over the country and settled near Hotchkiss because of its proximity to Grand Mesa.
Fournier is one of the groomers with the Grand Mesa Nordic Council, which is a nonprofit, community based organization of people who love to ski. The council maintains three separate Nordic ski areas on Grand Mesa, with close to 54 kilometers of groomed trails.
At Skyway, dogs are discouraged, but are welcomed at both Ward and County Line. Snowshoers are also welcome at all ski areas, but skiers ask that they walk to the side of the trail rather than in the classic tracks.
Because the organization operates on national forest land and established itself as a nonprofit 21 years ago, it can’t charge to use the trails. However, members encourage those who love to ski to become members. At a $25 annual fee, it’s one of the more affordable winter snow sports in Colorado.
There are donation boxes at the parking areas on top of the mesa and first-timers who have a great time are encouraged to drop in whatever they can afford.
“People can come up and put $5 in the box and it’s great,” Fournier said.
Most people understand that it costs money to maintain the trails, Fournier added. Trails are groomed twice in a weekend and several times throughout the week, depending on snowfall.
Fournier was a cross-country ski coach at a college in Maine and offers cross-country ski lessons throughout the winter at Skyway. The first class is tentatively scheduled for Dec. 18, depending on snow conditions. He recommends registering for the class in case inclement weather leads to a cancellation. For information regarding classes, go to gmnc.org
“You don’t need to take a lesson,” Fournier said. “You can put your skis on and walk on skis, but if you really want to ski, it’s good to take a lesson. You get the basics of weight transfer and gliding. We show you how to slow down and turn.”
Mesa Lakes Resort on top of Grand Mesa offers both cross-country ski and snowshoe rental, as does The Board & Buckle in Grand Junction.
“People usually come back laughing,” said Davis Findley, owner of The Board & Buckle, who adds that the learning curve is gradual and beginners usually have a good time.
“It’s probably the best (Nordic) skiing in Colorado,” Findley said. Because most cross country areas are near downhill areas, they’re usually smaller or squeezed in somewhere in the middle of steep terrain. In some areas, golf courses are groomed for cross country skiing.
“Grand Mesa is the best anywhere,” said Tom Ela, one of the founding members of Grand Mesa Nordic Council. “We get snow early, we have a longer season and the terrain is great.”
The 10,000-foot elevation is a blessing, since it helps keep the snow cold, crisp and fluffy, without getting icy or heavy. The elevation can also create challenges for skiers, especially for out-of-area guests who live closer to sea level. Even Grand Valley residents may find the 5,500-feet elevation difference can cause shortness of breath or elevation sickness.
“It’s terrific exercise,” Ela said; “a great way to get out and experience the winter wonderland.”
Even when the parking lots are full, it’s possible to get out on the trail and find tranquility and solitude. On top of the mesa, there’s no avalanche danger and the trails are well-marked with good signage. Although there are vault toilets in the parking areas, there are no other amenities, so skiers are advised to pack food and a thermos of hot cocoa or coffee.
With no lift lines, no crowds, a yearly membership that’s more affordable than a single day lift ticket, Nordic skiing offers an alternative for those who want to spend some time outside in the winter, but want a change from the downhill slopes.